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We don’t want to bombard you with statistics, but some of the numbers are staggering. 80 per cent of all blindness could be prevented or cured. That’s over 31 million people, most of whom live in the poorest countries in the world. And with poverty being both a cause and effect of blindness, a cycle is created that can be hard for communities to break out of.
Here are some of the eye conditions we’re up against:
This is one of a group known as neglected tropical diseases. It starts off as a bacterial infection a bit like conjunctivitis and can be easily treated. But if it’s not, over time it causes scarring to your eyelid which makes your eyelashes turn inward, so with every blink they’re scraping against your eye. It’s unbearably painful and can eventually cause blindness.
More than 21 million people currently have an active trachoma infection, most of whom are women and children. The disease was once rife all over the world, but was eliminated in the UK decades ago along with conditions like polio and smallpox. For higher-income countries it’s a disease of the past, but for millions of people in developing countries it’s causing pain in the present, and devastating their future.
In January 2016, a groundbreaking Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) was completed which saw surveyors collect and transmit data from 2.6 million people in 29 countries using Android smartphones. The three-year project collected vital data needed to take the next steps towards eliminating the disease.
Another neglected tropical disease, river blindness (onchocerciasis) is caused by a parasitic worm and transmitted by the bite of the black fly, which breeds near fast-flowing water (like the rivers where many communities get water for drinking, washing and bathing).
The fly bite passes worm larvae into your skin, the worms breed and spread around your body, and when they die your immune system causes inflammation, which can blind you if it happens in your eyes. Communities often flee infected areas, meaning they lose their homes and their access to water, which puts them at risk of other diseases.
River blindness costs an unbelievable 7p per person to treat each year (a tablet is taken for 10-15 years until the risk is eliminated). Read the description of the disease again – would you pay 7p to stop that happening to you? River blindness is another disease we’re aiming to eliminate in the areas we work in by 2025. You can help us do it, we have the treatment and it’s effective; we just have to get the tablets to the people who need them.
Most of us think of cataract as something that just affects older people, but in a lot of developing countries it’s a huge problem for children too. It’s caused by a buildup of protein that clouds the eye’s lens, leading to blurred vision and eventual blindness.
Although it’s not difficult to treat, it’s vital for children that it’s caught in time, or it can cause the eye to stop developing, after which it can never be properly restored. In communities where there’s little or no support for people who are blind, untreated cataract can mean no education, no income, no future and no possibility of escaping poverty.
A cataract operation takes about 20 minutes. It costs about £30 for an adult and £50 for a child (the higher cost is because an anaesthetist and an overnight stay are usually needed for children’s operations).
The term refractive error covers eye disorders caused by irregularity in the shape of the eye. Refractive errors make it difficult for your eye to clearly focus images from the outside world, and your vision can become blurred and impaired.
It includes problems like myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) and astigmatism (an irregularly curved cornea). They can’t be prevented but once diagnosed, they can be treated with glasses, contact lenses or surgery. The World Health Organization estimates that 153 million people live with visual impairment due to uncorrected refractive errors.
Glaucoma describes a group of eye conditions so it can be hard to classify. It’s usually caused when your eye’s drainage tubes block, causing pressure which can damage the optic nerve. It’s treatable with eye drops, laser treatment or surgery, but it needs to be caught as early as possible, because although treatment can control it, any damage it’s already caused to your sight can’t be reversed.
Our work also covers low vision, diabetic retinopathy, childhood blindness and the group (17 diseases in total) known as neglected tropical diseases, which incorporates not only trachoma and river blindness, but also buruli ulcer, Chagas disease, dengue/severe dengue, dracunculiasis, echinococcosis, foodborne trematodiases, human african trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, leprosy, lymphatic filariasis, rabies, schistosomiasis, soil transmitted helminthiases, taeniasis/cysticercosis and yaws. For more on neglected tropical diseases see World Health Organization website.
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